Linguarum enim inscitia disciplinas universas aut exstinxit, aut depravavit . . .
For ignorance of languages either marred or abolished the world of learning . . .
—Erasmus, 1529, De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis. Opera I, 377
Berkeley’s celebration of languages in the Library could not come at a better moment. We are living in a time when many Americans are smugly self-satisfied about speaking English Only, when our government has waged an ugly war against immigrants, when linguistic and cultural otherness is too often construed as a threat, and when the world of learning is narrowing to a point where it may again be falling on unfortunate times.
The national trends are clear. A recent report from the Modern Language Association shows that 651 foreign language programs in American colleges and universities were lost between 2013 and 2016. And these are not all “less commonly taught” languages: according to the MLA report, during the 2013-16 period, net losses included 129 French programs, 118 Spanish programs, 86 German programs, and 56 Italian programs. Since 2009, overall foreign language enrollments have declined by 15.3 percent nationally. A recent Pew Research Center study showed that only 20% of American K-12 students study a foreign language (as compared to 92% in Europe).
Berkeley is not immune to decreases in language enrollments, but our programs remain unusually strong and have been staunchly supported by the Berkeley administration. In any given year, between 50 and 60 languages are taught on campus, and this remarkable breadth reflects the diversity of the State of California and the backgrounds and research interests of our students and faculty. California leads the nation in linguistic diversity: 42% of Californians speak a language other than English in their homes (as of 2016), and California has more than a hundred indigenous languages. Not surprisingly, this year’s incoming students speak more than 20 languages.
Globalization is ostensibly a strong impetus for language study — and it is in most parts of the world, where knowledge of English and other major languages is viewed as a fundamental necessity for participation in the global economy. However, in the U.S., it seems that globalization has had the opposite effect, leading many Americans to adopt a complacent attitude: why study other languages when so much of the world revolves around English?
Berkeley resists such complacency. We recognize that knowing other languages opens up fresh perspectives on the world, on our relationships with others, on our own language and culture, on the various disciplines we study, and on the problems we strive to solve. Indeed, so many of the challenges we face today are global in nature and can only be approached through the multiplicity of perspectives that come with international cooperation and collaboration. While English may allow for broad sharing of information, the reality is that we will never fully understand the nuances of other peoples’ perspectives if we don’t speak their language. Furthermore, because language, thought, and identity are so intimately intertwined, acquiring languages other than our mother tongue enriches our very being, allowing us to take on new identities, adopt new attitudes and beliefs, develop greater cognitive flexibility, and understand ourselves and our culture in a new light. Seeing the world through the lens of another language and culture also fosters empathy, which is essential to counter increasingly pervasive waves of ethno-nationalism.
Our university library reflects this awareness that languages nourish our imagination, enhance our creativity, and broaden and deepen our understanding of worlds past and present. More than one third of the 13 million volumes in UC Berkeley’s collection are in languages other than English. Remembering that the word university derives from the Latin universitas, signifying both universality and community, let us celebrate together the rich diversity of the Library’s holdings and of languages on the Berkeley campus.
The Languages of Berkeley is a dynamic online sequential exhibition celebrating the diversity of languages that have advanced research, teaching and learning at the University of California, Berkeley. It is made possible with support from the UC Berkeley Library and is co-sponsored by the Berkeley Language Center (BLC).